AUBURN — An Auburn city councilor unleashed a rant at a public meeting Tuesday in which he said allegations that “dark-colored people” recently breaking laws in the South constituted “a black mark” against an esteemed African American who once served as the city’s mayor.

The comments came during a brief council discussion of a proposal by Auburn and Lewiston to rename a pedestrian bridge across the Androscoggin River to honor John Jenkins, who served as mayor in Lewiston from 1994 to 1998 and later in Auburn. He died in September 2020.

The proposal passed unanimously, but not before City Councilor Leroy Walker weighed in.

Leroy Walker Sun Journal file photo

Walker, who has represented Ward 5 since 2011 and is running unopposed for reelection, said that “what’s going on down there” in “Alabama and them areas” are the sort of “things that put a bad name on good people like John Jenkins.”

It is unclear what possible connection there could be between a deceased former mayor and the unidentified criminal activities that Walker described.

“It’s only because of the color of his skin,” Walker said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Councilor Katie Boss said she was shocked to hear Walker’s comments.

“There is no place for overt racism here,” she said later in the session. “Publicly honoring an honorable Black man should not be an issue in this community.”

Boss said the episode highlighted the need for more discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion within the community and urged officials to take steps to embrace efforts to combat racism.

Walker said Wednesday he “didn’t catch” everything Boss said because “with these crazy masks, half of it is mumbled,” but he heard enough to decide he had no interest in countering her.

“I knew John really, really well,” Walker said, and had no problem naming the bridge after him.

Councilor Belinda Gerry called him “the great John Jenkins” and recalled how he was always there “to help you and motivate you.”

She said she was sorry to hear about a number of phone calls that Walker got, adding that Jenkins was “a gentleman” and that race shouldn’t be interjected into the issue of the bridge dedication.

Walker said he simply wanted everyone to know that some people in the community were wary of the idea.

He said Wednesday that he heard from local people “who were upset about what they were seeing” on videos from hurricane-hit areas of “Black people looting and breaking into places.”

“It left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth,” Walker said, and caused some to worry the city was only naming the bridge for Jenkins as a carrot for the fast-growing Black community.

“The timing was bad,” Walker said, and he felt the need “to put it out there” so everyone would know of the concerns by some white residents.

John Jenkins Sun Journal file photo

After a news story recently detailed the plan to name the old railroad bridge after Jenkins, a Bates College graduate who fell in love with the Twin Cities, Walker said he told the council he received “a few phone calls” related to the proposal.

He proceeded to say that “since we’ve had the floods that have happened down in Alabama and them areas” — perhaps a reference to the damage done by Hurricane Ida this month — “it really has made a black mark toward John Jenkins because of what’s going on down there with the dark-colored people breaking in, lootering, stealing and every other thing.”

Officials in the hurricane-hit area have made some arrests for looting and related crimes, but there is no evidence that it’s been especially bad or that African Americans are uniquely responsible for any illegal activity.

“So I’ve had some calls that people are very upset that we’re trying to place ourself in a position that, uh, some of the words have been ‘be special to the Black people’ so that we don’t have to worry about the type of things that are going on in these areas,” Walker said.

“And I really feel bad because John Jenkins and I pretty well grew up together,” Walker said “and I know John Jenkins would never in his life ever be part of what’s going on in these areas.”

“But I had to say something because them are the types of things that put a bad name on good people like John Jenkins,” Walker said. “And I’m sorry that has happened.”

Councilor Holly Lasagna said if anyone should have “a bad name” from this, it’s the people who called Walker, not Jenkins.

Lisa Savage, an independent candidate for U.S. Senate last year, asked on Twitter, “How can someone believe that anyone who’s perceived as the same color as someone else is responsible for the actions of similar-appearing people far away? More to the point, how can Leroy Walker be a good councilor for Auburn’s Black residents if he believes this?”

Walker worked for the city of Auburn for 39 years, including serving as its park superintendent. In that time, he said, he got to know Jenkins well.

On the city’s website, he said he “hopes to serve the taxpayers of Auburn with dignity and pride. He is confident that he and the rest of the Auburn Council will accomplish great things while in office.”

Jenkins, a New Jersey native, was a motivational speaker and martial arts expert who was elected to the state Senate representing Lewiston in 1996, the first African American to serve in the Senate. He also won elections to serve as mayor of Auburn and Lewiston, including a write-in campaign for mayor in Auburn in 2007.

Walker said that when he worked in the recreation department, Jenkins would often come to city playgrounds and teach youngsters karate, breaking boards and letting “the kids break something,” too.

“We had a lot of fun with John,” Walker said. “John earned our respect.”

Jenkins died on Sept. 30, 2020 of cancer at the age of 68.

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